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Thin & Thick Questions

July 2, 2019

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

—Albert Einstein

Einstein credited curiosity as the driving force of his success. By asking questions and indulging his curiosity, he was able to challenge centuries‑old views about the universe and turn them upside down.

And who knows? You could have the next Einstein right in your classroom. By introducing your students to the concept of thin and thick questions, you may be able to pull out the Einstein in all of them.

Reading fiction can serve as a conduit for developing curiosity. To start the process, first make sure that students understand the basic storyline of the passage you are working with. A fail-safe way to know students have gotten the gist is to ask “thin” questions—literal questions that ask about the specific details of the text. Questions that can be answered with a few words, yes/no, or a number fall into this category. They often start with who, what, when, or where.

Once students have the confidence that goes hand‑in‑hand with comprehension, the real engagement with curiosity can begin. By learning how to ask “thick” questions, students can begin to probe beneath the surface of the reading. Unlike thin questions, thick questions require students to activate prior knowledge, and the answers are open-ended and often complex. If you have 20 students in a class, you may get 20 different answers to the same thick question. The answers to these questions don’t jump off the page; students have to use their imagination to respond to them.

So how does this actually work in the classroom? Take Jack and the Beanstalk. First, have students read the story. To check comprehension, ask a few thin questions. For example:

  1. Who are the main characters in the story?
  2. Where does the story take place?
  3. What happens to the seeds after Jack’s mother throws them out the window?

Once you have made sure that students understand the story, pose several thick questions and have students discuss them in groups or pairs. For example:

  1. What character traits describe Jack?
  2. Why is the ogre’s servant willing to help Jack?
  3. What do you think happens to Jack and his mother after the story ends?

Remind students that there are no right or wrong answers. After the discussion, challenge groups or pairs to come up with their own thick questions. Give them a few question starters as a guide:

  1. What if…?
  2. How did…?
  3. Why is…?
  4. What character traits describe…?
  5. What would happen if…?
  6. How would you feel if…?
  7. What caused…?
  8. What does the author mean by…?

Once students have created their own thick questions, put them in small groups to discuss the new questions. (Hopefully they will enjoy piquing their classmates’ curiosity!)

As students become comfortable with this new skill, encourage them to ask thick questions before, during, and after a reading. And always keep in mind what Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”


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Comments (5)

Barbara Haas(Guest)

Thank you so much for this post! As a librarian in a school with a huge ESL population, I’m always looking for tips like this to help my students!

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Ann Dickson(Guest)

Thank you, Barbara. I'm so glad you found the post helpful!

Jordan K.(Teacher)

Fantastic blog, really helpful and insightful.

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Maurice T.(Teacher)

Wow, this is absolutely amazing!
Thank you!

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    Ann Dickson(Author)

    Hi Maurice,

    Thank you for your kind comment! I'm happy you found the post useful.

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